Price Hikes May Result In Increased Stunting – But It Doesn’t Need To Be That Way

As we sighed in relief with the loosening restrictions caused by the pandemic, there’s another problem that looms in Malaysia. The Department of Statistics Malaysia’s consumer price index (CPI) in April 2022 reported that the prices of goods are 4.1% higher compared to April 2021[1].

At least 89.1% of items in the food and beverages have increased in price. Notably, it is the highest increase since January 2018[1].

Source: Kosmo

The factors behind the food inflation are numerous, including the nation’s strong dependence on imported goods and the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war. 

Regardless, the magnitude of rising food prices has rippled to households nationwide. But, the lower-income households are feeling the strongest pinch.

Faridah, a housewife and a mother to three children in Ipoh, admitted that food items were costing more. She is, however, resolute in not skimping on putting a proper meal on the table. Her husband works in a cement factory in Ipoh and has to put in additional 10 hours of overtime per month to earn more[2].

Source:Unsplash

Everything has gone up. Tell me what has gone down in price? If last time RM250 meant five bags of items at a supermarket, now it is only three bags. – Faridah, a housewife and a mother to three children in Ipoh[2]

To maximise her spending, she has cut down her children’s snacks which have increased from RM1 to RM1.50. 

Food Inflation Resulting In Lesser Nutrition On The Table 

Undeniably, the food inflation would affect the low-income group more as the group spent the most money on food in the context of their total household expenditure.

Many people, especially in the B40 category, may not be able to buy nutritious food for their children. – Professor Dr Mohd Nazari Ismail from Universiti Malaya’s Business and Economics Faculty[3]

This is alarming as, during the lockdowns, children in lower-income households have been consuming at least 40-50% more instant noodles, eggs and rice[4]. The selected food items are more common in their households.

Source: Unsplash

The food at the bottom of the food pyramid, fruits and vegetables is a rare occurrence in their grocery list[4].

At the same, the Rancangan Makanan Tambahan (RMT) in schools have seen a budget cut from RM420 million to RM400 million in 2022[5]. Food providers in schools have lamented that the allocation of RM2.50 per student in Peninsular and RM3.00 for students in East Malaysia is insufficient in light of the rising food price[5].

I agree that the RMT rate should be increased from RM2.50 to RM4 based on the current situation of wet goods becoming more expensive. If the old rate is maintained, it will either affect the quality of food or affect canteen operators. It is therefore proposed to increase the rate. – Maszlee Malik, Simpang Renggam MP and former Education Minister [5]

Families have downgraded their meals to sustain and fill their tummies with reliance on carbs. Downgrading meals, however, has its own sets of repercussions on children’s appetite. Norsalasiah Kamaruzzaman, who had been thrifty in meal planning while raising her three children, found that her children preferred fried eggs drizzled with soy sauce. 

My children find it more appetising to eat fried eggs and soy sauce as a side dish for lunch and dinner. I used to cook side dishes like gulai but my kids still chose fried eggs. Norsalasiah Kamaruzzaman, a mother to three children[6]

The lack of nutritious food consumed by children has become a leading factor in our high stunting rate in Malaysia. 

Now, with the rising goods and food prices in the market – will we be witnessing a worsening trend in stunting in Malaysia? 

What Is Stunting And How Severe It Is In Malaysia?

So what if my child’s a little short? It’s common for Malaysian children (to be shorter in height). We can’t expect them to be as tall as Caucasian children). – BERNAMA[7]

Stunting is more than just a child being shorter in height. It is the inability of a child to reach their potential height for their age, making them shorter than their peers.

It may seem like a norm to parents and, due to our culture, short stature among children isn’t a cause for concern.

Short stature is common and often deemed as normal in our society. As such, actual stunting may not be well-recognised in early childhood. – Dr Anna Padmavathy Soosai, a consultant paediatrician and neonatologist[8]

The statistics exceedingly spell a different reality. In 2019, 21.8% of Malaysian under-fives were stunted (low height for age)[9].

The stunting rate among children under five in 2016 (20.7%) in Malaysia was at a higher pedestal than in the war-riddled Gaza and West Bank in 2014 (7.4%) [10].

The factors behind stunting include genetics and hormones.  But the biggest culprit is essentially malnutrition. And the sad fact is that stunting is irreversible. 

If the problem is not detected and corrected within the first 1,000 days of life (before the child turns two years old), a child may have to deal with the repercussions of stunting throughout their life. It isn’t just being short, but also lower cognitive function and immunity leaving the child prone to infection. 

There are a number of complications that may arise from growth problems during early childhood. The short-term problems include impaired brain development, which may lead to lower IQ. The undernourished children also may have a weakened immune system, which may lead to recurrent infections, hence further worsening their growth. – Datuk Dr Musa Mohd Nordin, a consultant paediatrician and neonatologist at KPJ Damansara Specialist Hospital[11]

Stunting Not Limited To Low Income Households

Truth be told, children in the low-income household or B40 income groups are more susceptible to stunting. At least 22% of children from the income group were affected in 2019 [9].

There have been concerns about stunting among children, especially among vulnerable urban groups. One of the contributing factors is malnutrition. – Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance’s Economic Outlook 2022[12]

Children growing up in households earning less than RM1,000 per month have almost double the risk of being stunted in comparison to households earning more than RM5,000 per month[9].

Source: courfuture.com

But higher incomes do not also mean better health. The richest district in Malaysia, Putrajaya, reports that almost one in four children is stunted. 

As of 2019, at least 17% of children in T20 households were stunted[9]. One of the reasons is the reliance on fast food and childcare duties for guardians or domestic workers.

A Generation Of Stunted Growth

In 2019, a Malaysian newborn can expect to live up to 75 years compared to 71.9 years in 1990. Better life expectancy, however, doesn’t mean it will be spent in good health, some 9.5 years of 75 years will be spent in poor health, 0.4 years more than in 1990[13].

The effect of stunting is life-long, and at the current state of things, it could mean a generation of adults where at least a fifth of them have lower cognitive functions resulting in fewer professional opportunities and earning less for stunted individuals[7].

Stunting can result in serious social and economic costs for the labour market and overall economic development of the country. – Dr Derek Kok, research analyst at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia and the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development [7]

It could also surpass intergenerationally, as a mother with a history of stunting would pass on her genes to her children. Stunted growth enhances the probability of contracting other non-communicable diseases such as cancer. 

In the long term, stunted children may have smaller adult stature and lower productivity (owing to lower IQ and academic performance). Stunted children have an increased risk of becoming overweight and obese adults, which causes a greater risk of diabetes and cancer, and premature death. – Datuk Dr Musa Mohd Nordin, consultant paediatrician and neonatologist at KPJ Damansara Specialist Hospital[11]

But, what can be done to put a cap on the bottle? 

Eating Healthy Is Doable

I don’t think we should just blame the situation entirely on the country’s system. Sometimes, it also has to do with the family, such as the eating habits of the adults and their ways of cooking, which would affect the children’s health as well. That’s why I think education is very important. – Shalini Yeap, lead coordinator and project manager for Happy Tummies[11]

According to Goo Hui Hoong, a consultant dietitian, children in Malaysia are consuming enough protein in their diet from meat and poultry. But, they are also eating fats and salt in excess. At the same time, children are not getting enough vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables and also adequate calcium from milk or dairy products.

When children are born, they are like a blank canvas. They can be groomed to enjoy clean and healthy foods. However, it is not uncommon that when parents themselves do not like to eat vegetables, they do not offer vegetables to their children. – Goo Hui Hoong, a consultant dietitian[11]

A plate of rice with stir-fried cabbage and omelette is considered affordable to the average Malaysian family, but it may be the last menu on the minds of lower-income families. 

To experts, the RMT programme is a suitable avenue to introduce children to better eating habits and extending it to younger age groups is crucial to tackling malnutrition earlier on. Also, the provision of better food should be at the forefront rather than only food that satiates. 

I truly think RMT is a fantastic way to provide extra nutrition to our children, especially those from households that are struggling to put food on the table. 

Besides making sure the food is being prepared for the children to adhere to the national dietary guidelines, the RMT food vendors should also be economically protected as well, so they are not forced to cut corners at the expense of the innocent young ones.Ding Yen-Nee, a pharmacist[11]

In addition to the RMT programme, non-governmental organisations have stepped in to provide food aid to lower-income households. The Lost Food Project, for example, has been salvaging food and channelling it to those living in PPR, taking off the worry of providing sufficient meals to their children. Rise Against Hunger Malaysia emphasised the need to provide child nourishment through providing food packages.

As we lament the increasing prices of food on our weekly grocery trips, consider purchasing goods consciously and reduce our own food waste. Many households are struggling to place healthy meals on the table, contribute to organisations out there and ensure that the upcoming generation of children is receiving meals packed with nutrients vital for their growth. 

Explore our sources:

  1. FMT Reporters. (2022). Malaysians paying higher prices for their meals.Free Malaysia Today. Link
  2. R.S.Bedi. (2022).‘Most people are complaining’: With food inflation higher at 4.1%, Malaysian consumers are feeling the pinch. Channel News Asia. Link
  3. V.Babulal. (2022). B40 kids at risk as food prices soar. New Straits Times. Link
  4. UNICEF. (2020). Families On The Edge: Issue 1. Link
  5. F.Azil. (2021). Naikkan kadar RMT ke RM4, libatkan sekali M40 yang memerlukan – Maszlee. Astro Awani. Link
  6. W.Aula. (2018). Terbantut, kurus kering: Ada keluarga di PPR hanya hidangkan satu lauk sehari. Astro Awani. Link
  7. BERNAMA. (2022). 1 in 5 Malaysian children stunted – why it’s a cause for concern. Daily Express. Link
  8. Codeblue. (2021). How Has Your Child Been Growing During The Pandemic? — Malaysian Paediatric Association. Link
  9. Institute for Public Health. (2020). National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019: Non-Communicable Diseases: Risk Factors and Other Health Problems. Shah Alam: Institute for Public Health, Ministry of Health. Link.
  10. World Bank Group. (2018). Malaysia Economic Monitor, December 2018. Realizing Human Potential. Link
  11. S.Surendran & J.T. Liew. (2022). The State Of The Nation: Collective effort necessary to eliminate malnourishment among children. The Edge Markets. Link
  12. Ministry of Finance. (2022). Economic Outlook 2022. Link
  13. I.Mukhriz. (2022). COMMENT | Recognise social determinants to improve health. Malaysiakini. Link

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